Romantic comedies are maybe harmful. And definitely over...  

Romantic comedies make you desperate to get married. And think that stalking is OK. That’s why they feel so dated, says Lynn Enright 

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By Lynn Enright on

One of the major reasons I want to get married is because of marriage plots, in novels and films and TV shows. I know how that sounds. I mean, I’m not particularly proud of this fact. But I’ve thought about this a lot and, well, it’s the truth. 

Of course, there are other reasons – some more romantic, some more practical – but the prevalence of the big happy ending in literature and in romantic comedies is certainly a factor. Somewhere along the line, I internalised the notion that an individual’s story can be tied up in a lovely marital bow around the time of her 30th birthday, that all the hapless struggle gets conveniently mopped up by the promise of fidelity and romantic devotion somewhere around the end of youth. I bought the plot of Bridget Jones. I swallowed whole the premise of When Harry Met Sally. I believed Sex And The City. 

I was a Sex And The City addict as a teenager and young woman. Even thinking about it now, in the cold hard light of grown-upness, I honestly think that perhaps my life would have turned out differently if Sex And The City hadn’t appeared on TV the year I was 15. 

Would I have become a journalist who often writes about sex and fashion if it hadn’t been for Carrie Bradshaw? I mean, the career guidance counsellor never mentioned it as an option. Would I have swapped my hometown and the country I was born in for the nearest major metropolis? Would I have accepted some pretty shitty noncommittal emotionally manipulative behaviour from men while I was in my early twenties? 

It’s impossible to know how much I can blame Bradshaw and Big for my own naiveties and failures, but certainly the stories that we tell each other – the stories that we gobble up when we are impressionable teenagers and should-know-better adults – influence how we engage with the world.

The funniest, most interesting writers and filmmakers are moving on, telling stories that don’t make women feel they have to get married to live a happy life

So, this week’s news that academic research showed that watching romantic comedies can make women more likely to accept “stalking myths” – ie take stalking less seriously – wasn’t particularly  surprising. Gender and sexuality expert Julia R Lippman, an academic at the University of Michigan, examined women and their attitudes to aggressive romantic behaviour after they had watched a variety of films. When the women had watched films that portrayed stalking as a lighthearted romantic gesture (like in There’s Something About Mary), they were more likely to accept stalking myths – defined by Lippman as “false or exaggerated beliefs about stalking that minimise its seriousness, which means that someone who more strongly endorses these tends to take stalking less seriously” – than when they had watched films that depicted stalking in an overtly negative light, or films that did not feature stalking at all. 

Of course, the internet responded by screaming that YES, Andrew Lincoln’s Love Actually character is a massive creep, but Lippman was keen to stress that the findings have serious ramifications. “[Such movies] can encourage women to discount their instincts,” she told Canada’s Global News. “This is a problem because research shows that instincts can serve as powerful cues to help keep us safe.” So, there we have it: the evidence that romantic comedies are, actually, harmful. The thing is that, for the past decade or so, they haven’t felt very romantic or very comedic either. So maybe, finally, the jig is up on the romantic comedy. 

The funniest, most interesting writers and filmmakers are moving on, telling stories that don’t make women feel they have to get married to live a happy life or accept the advances of a hapless stalker to be polite. 

Greta Gerwig’s ode to female friendship, Frances Ha, feels much more pertinent than any film that involves somebody tricking somebody else into going out with them (basically the premise of 80 per cent of romantic comedy films) and Catastrophe, the TV show that focuses on the antics that ensue *after* a couple have committed to each other, is relevant and funny and everything I want in a post-SATC world.

One of the most anticipated books of the year, Not Working by Lisa Owens, portrays a young woman negotiating her place in the world, and manages to be deeply romantic and completely hilarious without including stalking subplots and wedding gowns. 

There is still plenty of romance out there, the world is still a very funny place and watching an episode of SATC will always be a pleasant way to spend half an hour, but we’ve begun to ask a little more from our stories, and from our lives and our loves.  


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